A Brief Note on Soleimani

By now, you’ve certainly seen the news that Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds force, and a true hardliner straight out of central casting, has been assassinated in Iraq by a United States airstrike.

In grasping for a modern historical equivalence, one comes up short. There is no way to say it other than the United States killed one of the most powerful men of a country with whom we are not at war. This was extrajudicial, almost certainly extra-legal, and extraordinarily dangerous.

That’s not to say that his end isn’t essentially fitting. This was a man who brought violence and chaos to the region, and many met far worse ends because of his manipulations and his paths of glory. In Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and around the globe, people have been killed by his forces and his proxies. He was a true fanatic, and it is impossible to mourn him.

What we have to recognize, though, is what he was a fanatic for: Iranian influence throughout the region. The reversion of Iran to its typical historical glory, and its power in western and central Asia. To being the center of Middle East like it was when this was not the Middle East, but the dead goddamn center of the world.

That’s one of the reasons this is so dangerous. Soleimani was inarguably the 2nd-most powerful man in Iran. He was because he represented the reality of the Revolution. It wasn’t about Islam, exactly. It was about overthrowing Western dominance and the corrupt, West-backed Shah. As I’ve argued before:

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

And that is really Soleimani’s symbolic role, or more precisely the symbolic weight of his very real actions. He was the outstretched fist or Iranian power, bending the region to Iran’s designs. He was so powerful in the country because the whole point of the Revolution was to bring that back, and he’s doing it.

None of this is to say that he was legitimately popular in Iran, as of course the government itself is deeply unpopular. And I’m certainly not going to insult you by pretending to know how “the Iranian people” will react. But this is pure American dominance and arrogance. It’s an act of slapping back Iran for daring to practice politics in the region. It will be seen as nothing more than the cruelest imperialism. This ignores, of course, that Iran politics are bloody imperialism, but we aren’t pretending that humans are rational.

The Supreme Leader will have no choice but to retaliate. Whomever takes over Quds will have every incentive o activate militias and hit US targets directly. His fiercely loyal fighters will be almost impossible to restrain. And a bungling, incredibly incompetent US government, which has systematically forced out expertise, isn’t prepared for what’s next. How could they be? They don’t know, and don’t care, what came before.

As a sort-of aside, the extra-legal part of this is pretty important domestically. There is no real justification for this under the AUMF, and if that pernicious bit of hasty paranoia is stretched to encompass the killing, it will be sad lunacy. Really, it will be the apotheosis of the AUMF, which has perverted further an already deeply-expeditionary and evangelical approach to violence. It is the culmination the last 20 years, but not an end. This is the beginning of a new and even-more dangerous phase.

Trump’s National Security “Policies” As Muddled as he is Ignorant

This might just be the permanent clip for Trump-era foreign policy

So, let’s sum up the last few days. Steve Bannon is out at the NSC, a victory for McMasters, but maybe a meaningless one, since he still hasn’t been able to put in his own people, for the most part.  Still, it’s a start, because as the NYTimes put it, it’s the removal of a “political advisor”.

in Syria, the administration first said that it was “silly” to talk about removing Asad, only to sort of reverse course. “Only days after the White House declared it would be ‘silly’ to persist in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Trump said, ‘My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'” Nikki Haley is threatening unilateral action, and seems genuinely emotional following the chemical attack on civilians in Idlib (understandably and genuinely, I think).

And, of course, this is against the backdrop of SecDef Mattis being given far more leeway to fight ISIS and AQAP, loosening restrictions on field commanders and broadening what is considered an “area of active hostilities“. While this will increase civilian casualties, it will also almost certainly hurt ISIS more on the battlefield.

So, overall…are these good things? I think, in a vacuum, you could make a case for each one. Certainly, the demotion of the vile Steve Bannon is a good thing, because it might signal that he has displeased the Fake King. Certainly, Trump’s string of failures is eating at him, and when he lashes out, who knows who will take the fall? But it’s also true that Bannon isn’t merely a “political adviser.” He’s Trump’s worldview shaper, and probably the best person at helping trump find enemies to take the blame for his own personal failures. So we’ll see if Bannon is actually on the outs (which is possible) or if this is just a temporary ego-assuaging for Trump.

Syria is interesting, except that it is clear that Trump has no real plans. He goes entirely on however he feels at the moment. Deciding to get more involved against the Asad government means taking certain responsibility for Syria, not to mention tangling with Russia. Does Trump actually mean this? Or was it just a tough-sounding gesture. It’s possible to see a world where the US bombs Syrian airstrips and planes, and maybe munitions dumps, but that would entail a broader national/regional strategy, as well as a coherent Russian one.

And that’s the main problem here: there is no strategy. Even the devolution of power to Mattis and field commanders, something that sounds sensible, is a product of not having any real foreign policy other than “beating our enemies” (and, in the case of Bannon, creating them in order to forge some civilizational conflict). It is all well and good to be, as Mattis is, a warrior. It might be true that the Obama administration micromanaged too much. But that (arguably) overabundance of caution came from the constant asking of “what’s next? What happens after we ‘win’? How does the world look then?”

It’s clear these aren’t questions Trump is asking, and certainly ones he doesn’t have the patience to see. While McMasters and Mattis are strategists, they are so in a narrow sense, as we discussed earlier.  And all of the Trump team’s plans (including creating “safe zones” for refugees to return) all seem geared toward short-term solutions that have zero interest in the long term, and zero interest in how they balance against other strategies. (Like, for instance, if you have “safe zones”, how do you protect them? What happens if they are attacked by Russia? What happens when they want to return to ruined villages?)

This starts from the top. Trump has no real vision, no real foreign policy. He’s the guy who reads the paper and says “we can do better, I know how!” This is literally true: it’s all he says.

So maybe you can have competent people. Maybe you can get some grownups on board. And maybe certain tactics, like letting loose the military on ISIS, can produce results. It almost certainly will. But when you are a flailing, know-nothing impatient ignoramus, the whole of your administration and policy will reflect that. It’s wrong to ask what Trump’s strategy is. It’s clear there is no method at all.


The Art of the Deal: Bilateralism and US Foreign Policy



I sort of feel like this dude. “Welp, this gonna suck.”


As I mentioned yesterday, one of this blog’s main ways of analyzing policy under Trump is to understand the ways the man’s own pathologies and self-image feed perfectly into the goals of those around him, who have actual goals and long-held beliefs. Steve Bannon wants to “deconstruct the administrative state” (i.e. stop having a functioning government)? Who better to do that through than a man who think that he, his kids, and that guy who married his daughter are the only ones with brains?

(By the way, “deconstructing the administrative state” has gotten a lot of press, but it’s just a scary-sounding Bannonism for what Republicans have been trying to do for decades, ever since they merged with the far right. It means destroying the idea of a self-governing nation. It’s an old game tricked out by his cheapjack revolutionary shtick. This isn’t new; it’s just now very powerful.)

This plays out in foreign policy in an interesting way as well. As we know, in terms of policy, Trump has very few beliefs. The only ones that are consistent are that “we’re getting screwed” in our deals, both economic and security, and that everyone is taking advantage of us. Part of that belief lies in some of his other unshakeable ideas: that he’s the world’s greatest deal-maker, and that the US was stupid not to have him negotiate everything. His sense of self and his limitless sense of victimization and injury have led him to believe that every deal is bad because the idiots in Washington didn’t let him do it.

And, happily, the far-right and the “alt-right” (which really aren’t different, and are essentially mainstream Republicanism), also hate all those “deals”. They hate multilateralism, as we talked about yesterday. It isn’t because of Agenda 21 or anything, though that’s good to frighten the rubes (and a frightening amount of those scared-rabbit rubes are in Congress).

It’s mostly because multi-lateral institutions were founded after WWII as a way to constrain the power of any individual nation, especially Germany. And while it is easy to say that this didn’t really work, since the US and the USSR forced every nation in the world to pick a side, they were still constrained.

Look at the terrible actions done by both sides. Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam on the US side. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Poland on the USSR. This just scratches the surface of foreign interventions, but even in those, there is a pattern. Only in Vietnam and Afghanistan (and Korea, but that was also part of WWII) was there active warfare, and even then both nations were “invited in” by governments to help fight/save Communism. The quotation marks in the last sentence obviously imply arm-twisting, but still: there was at least a hypocritical tribute to the idea of national sovereignty.

None of this was good, per se, but it observed the idea that you couldn’t just go in and plant your flag into someone else’s dirt through the skulls of the natives. I mean, the US and USSR did so, but pretended they weren’t, and weirdly, that pretending means something. It slowly shifted ideas. It isn’t absurd to think that, I don’t know, Botswana should have a say in international politics and the fate of their nation. It helped create the still-foaling idea that the “Global south” isn’t just the playground of empires, but people who have a say.

Needless to say, the right-wing hates that. One of the reason the Iraq War was supported so much on the right wasn’t any particular issue, but the idea that the US was going to do something, by god, without the UN or NATO or anyone who didn’t fall in goddamn line. That we acted without these multilaterals was not just a feature, for many, it was the whole point.

Multilateral obligations mean that you can’t just do whatever you want. Even George W. Bush recognized that the US had some obligations. But not Trump.

Remember, Trump’s entire sense of worth is wrapped up in the idea that he has the right to do whatever he wants. Businesses going bad? Declare bankruptcy and screw over his creditors. Don’t feel like paying contractors? Force them to accept pennies on the dollar or else be tied up in court for years. Woman not putting out? Move on her like a bitch. (Remember: that’s an actual quote from our President.)

This is perfect for the far right. Trump believes we’re getting screwed by these “deals” (he considers joining a global multilateral institution a “deal”, remember) and that he can get us much better ones, working country by country. And the heart of this is that, like contractors and creditors, he’s perfectly willing to screw over any country, to go back on deals, and to do whatever he needs to “win”.

And that’s perfect. That’s the US unconstrained. In theory, making numerous bilateral deals is really difficult, since you have to take into account shifting alliances, sides playing against each other, local concerns, and more. Look at how complicated Azerbijan is, and how important it is to Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and how complex their relationship is.

So, to play this right would take great diplomatic skill, or the belief that you don’t need diplomacy at all. Or, in a way, both. It takes some knowledge to negotiate, but it also takes the belief that if you don’t like what’s happening, or you have a better chance at succeeding by breaking a deal, you break the deal. You screw them over. And the willingness to do so, to break any rule for personal gain, has been the one consistent part of Donald Trump’s life.

This will make the world a far more dangerous place. As much as his ties with Russia and white supremacy, the abdication of the United States from multilateralism is how the liberal world order can collapse. Trump wants that to happen so that he can negotiate with important people who have to kiss his ass. The right wants that to happen so that the US can act unconstrained. They have found their vessel in a truly empty man, who has nothing but a skin of vanity.

It’s a perfect mix. And over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at how this plays out in the world, starting with (of course) Yemen.